Judge in groundbreaking antitrust case puts pressure on Google and judiciary during closing arguments

WASHINGTON— The judge presiding over a crucial antitrust case over whether Google stifles competition and innovation repeatedly suggested Thursday that he believes it will be difficult for a strong rival search engine to emerge.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta went back and forth with Google lead trial attorney John Schmidtlein on the first day of closing arguments in the trial, questioning whether another company could amass the money and data needed to develop a search engine, which could eventually compete with Google.

“Under current market conditions it seems very, very unlikely, if not impossible,” Mehta said. He added that it seemed strange to him that there is a market in which Google is making billions of dollars in profits, but no one is “trying to enter the market to limit that profit.”

Google made nearly $96 billion in operating profit last year, mostly from selling digital ads – a market it also dominates largely because it controls about 90% of the U.S. Internet search market.

The judge also questioned how common it is for users to deviate from the default search engines pre-installed on their smart devices. The default search option is a key question in the test. Federal prosecutors allege that Google protects its franchise by spending more than $20 billion annually to ensure its search engine automatically answers queries on Apple’s iPhone and web browsers such as Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox.

Justice Department lawyers claim that the money Google spends on standard search contracts – with most of the money going to Apple – now exceeds its annual investments in improving the quality of its results.

At one point, the judge pointed to an example mentioned in the trial that 80% of desktop users who use Microsoft Edge also use the company’s search engine, Bing, and asked why this was not evidence of the “stickiness” of default settings because only 20% have switched to Google in the Edge browser.

Google has long argued that the reason for its success is because it has developed the best technology, negating the need to engage in sinister tactics.

“Google wins because it’s better,” Schmidtlein said. “Everyone who walked into that courtroom said Google was better.”

Schmidtlein told the judge that Apple had the opportunity to opt out of Google’s standard agreements and use other options such as Bing as the default, but stayed with Google.

“They chose Google,” Schmidtlein said.

Mozilla also tried switching to Yahoo as the default search engine in its Firefox browser before switching back to Google in 2017, largely due to its users’ preferences.

Mehta also questioned the Justice Department about what was unusual about Google’s five-year contracts with Apple, saying it was natural that a company that already had a contract would be in a better position to bid for the same contract again because the contracts are longer and is familiar with the company.

“What you just described applies to any contract,” Mehta said.

The judge then asked questions about whether competitors were making enough investments to compete with Google.

“You can talk about competition, but the participant has some responsibility for the competition,” Mehta said.

Lawyers from the Justice Department and Google will present closing arguments Thursday and Friday in Washington, DC, capping the largest antitrust case in a quarter century.

After closing arguments in the Justice Department’s antitrust case against Google conclude this week, Mehta is expected to deliver his verdict in late summer or early fall. If he concludes that Google has violated the law, another trial will decide how to curb the company’s market power.

The case against Google mirrors in many ways the case against Microsoft in the 1990s, including the existential threat it poses to a renowned technology giant whose products are relied upon by billions of people.

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